A guitar compressor pedal may seem like an expendable effect as they don’t typically alter your sound as dramatically as, say, a fuzz pedal or guitar synthesizer. But experienced professional guitarists understand the critical difference a quality ‘comp’ can make to their overall guitar sound. Our “Top 15 Best Guitar Compressor Pedals of 2016 – Buyer’s Guide” will help you decide if you need a compressor and pick out the best pedal for your needs.
What Is Compression?
Simply put, compression is dynamic volume attenuation. It makes loud sounds quieter, and quiet sounds louder.
Do I Need A Guitar Compressor?
A compressor can give you a more consistent volume output level. For guitar this means taming volume spikes (loud sounds) when you strum or pick hard. And it means increasing sustain by raising the level of decaying notes (quiet sounds).
While a compressor generally evens out playing dynamics and adds clean sustain, a great compressor can also contribute to the tonal foundation that’s fed into the rest of your effects chain. Even if you usually plug directly into a guitar amplifier with no effects pedals, adding a compressor in the middle can create a responsive, cohesive bond between your guitar and amp while preserving (or in some cases, adding to) your guitar tone.
Aren’t All Compressors Basically The Same?
In a word: No.
While compressors generally do the same thing – attenuate volume – there are many types of compressors with differing characteristics, and it’s important to select the best type of compression pedal for your setup and style of playing.
Types Of Compressor:
- OTA (Operational Transconductance Amplifier) – The earliest guitar compression pedals, most notably the MXR Dyna Comp & Ross Compressor, are of the OTA type as are most compression pedals made today. They’re typically based around a CA3080 or LM13700 chip and have an organic quality known to work well with guitar. While the early designs are plagued by noise and have a reputation for coloring tone (regarded as tone-sucking or tone-enhancing depending on who you ask), some modern pedal builders have greatly improved these designs. Best for: general guitar compression, simplicity, color.
- VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) – VCA (and FET) compressors are the category that most ‘studio-style’ comps fall into. VCA compressors sound very clean and are less likely to color your tone. They’re also very precise & responsive and often give you studio-style parameter controls (including Attack, Release, Ratio, Threshold, Knee, etc.) The dbx 160A is a noteworthy studio VCA comp. Best for: transparency, responsiveness, studio-style control.
- FET (Field Effect Transistor) – Another type of ‘studio-style’ compressor, FET comps are similar to VCA compressors in terms of feature set. They can sometimes impart additional color on your sound, particularly if they use a power transformer or if you crank their ‘Input’ controls. (FET comps tend to have an Input control in place of a Threshold control, driving the input signal to increase compression.) The Urei 1176 is the most famous studio FET compressor. Best for: studio-style control, responsiveness, transparency or color.
- Optical – Optical compressors rely on a light source and photo resistor to attenuate your signal. These compressors are very smooth and natural sounding with slower release times. Best for: smoothness, organic feel, slower release.
- Tube – Tube compressors are typically optical comps with tube gain stages and are known for their ‘toneful’ qualities. The most famous example is the Teletronix LA-2A, often regarded as the greatest compressor of all time. Best for: warmth, smoothness, color.
- Multiband – Multiband compression is typically found in plugin compression software used within a DAW (like Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live, etc.). It separates your signal into separate frequency bands and compresses each individually for the utmost in carefully controlled dynamics. Best for: in-depth control, precise compression, transparency.
There are a few anomalies in pedal compression that don’t fit into these categories, but these types are the most relevant ones and those of the best compressors that made our list.
It’s important to note that these pedals aren’t listed in order from best to worst, per se. Each compressor pedal here has unique qualities that set it apart from the others, and each one has potential to be a better fit for a particular style of guitar playing. The best guitar compressor overall is ultimately to be determined by you!
Now here are the Top 13 Best Guitar Compressor Pedals of 2020!
I have a confession. While arguing for the merits of using compression with guitar, even I sometimes find myself reluctant to remove a more dramatic ‘effect’ pedal from my pedalboard in favor of using a compressor. But even when I find myself unwilling to squeeze in a larger compression pedal, at the very least I always make room for the space-saving Xotic Effects SP Compressor. Its compact size is one of the reasons why the SP Compressor has found its way onto my pedalboard more often than any other comp. The other reason? The Xotic SP Compressor sounds great!
The SP Compressor is an OTA comp that aims for the Ross-type sound. It has an incredibly simple-to-use control set that makes this a great ‘first compressor ‘ and perhaps the best affordable choice for guitarists who still want professional sound and performance in a space-saving pedal. A simple Hi/Mid/Lo switch and Blend knob let you dial in the compression while Level sets your output volume. It doesn’t get any easier. If you want more customization, 4 internal dip-switches let you set the Attack & Release and activate an Input Pad & High Cut Filter. There isn’t a more flexible micro comp out there that also sounds as good as the Xotic SP Compressor. It’s a great pedal for compression novices and pro guitarists alike.
P.S. Dear Xotic Effects, please consider releasing a special edition of the SP Compressor with a full range “Comp” knob in place of the Hi/Mid/Low switch. My ideal compression setting would be somewhere between Low & Mid. Thanks! ~ Gabriel
The folks at Diamond Guitar Pedals had an intriguing idea: what if there was a ‘guitar channel’ in a pedal that was similar to a studio-grade, rack-mount ‘vocal channel’ consisting of mic preamp, compressor, & EQ all in one? The result of the ensuing engineering mission was the widely acclaimed Diamond Compressor and its progeny, the recently released Comp Jr.
The Diamond Compressor (in standard or Comp Jr form) is your all-in-one stage and studio tool for adding a professional touch to your guitar signal. At its heart the Diamond Compressor/Comp Jr is a low-noise optical compressor that smooths out your signal while preserving signal integrity thanks to premium audio grade components. An EQ is applied post compression that lets you “tilt” the frequency emphasis towards treble or bass frequencies with the center position remaining flat in response for an impressively transparent sound. The Volume knob sets your output level like moving the fader on a mixing console. Brilliant in concept. Exceptional in execution.
Due to the overwhelming requests from devoted guitarists, Diamond released the Comp Jr for those guitar players who needed a smaller version for their pedalboards. The differences between the Diamond Compressor & Comp Jr are few but notable. Diamond made every effort to maintain the Compressor’s sound quality in the Comp Jr by using similar-spec high-quality components. The Comp Jr is smaller with top-mounted jacks while the original Compressor has additional options for EQ In/Out & a 4.8kHz Hi-Cut.
Diamond Compressor: See the lowest price on Amazon.
Diamond Comp Jr: See the lowest price on Amazon.
Keeley Electronics has long been widely regarded for their top tier compression pedals hence having several entries on our “best compressors” list. For over a decade their classic 2-Knob/4-Knob Compressor has been hailed among pro guitarists as one of the top guitar compressors around. But Robert Keeley & Co. decided to abandon the tried and true “Ross/Dyna Comp” formula and go for a whole new level of “pro” quality, studio-grade compression with the appropriately named Compressor Pro.
The Keeley Electronics Compressor Pro draws upon the foundation set by Keeley’s own GC-2 Limiting Amplifier, particularly in that it’s also based around a premium THAT Corp. 4320 chip, giving this stompbox a high degree of audio fidelity and performance potential that surpasses most VCA compressor pedals. Not to mention you get a full range of controls akin to what you’d find on a compressor in the studio: Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, Gain. You can also select from a Soft Knee (for a smoother response) or Hard Knee (for tighter compression or limiting duties). The Auto Mode is a standout feature as this automates the Attack & Release depending on source material, and it sounds good enough to be your default mode. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is Keeley Electronics’ best pedal to date.
Brand: Wampler Pedals, Model: Ego Compressor, Comp Type: OTA
Okay, we’ve gotta talk about the Wampler Ego Compressor. We simply can’t keep the ‘Ego’ suppressed. While there have been more attempts in recent years to create more studio inspired compression pedals, it’s the OTA design of the old Ross Compressor & MXR Dyna Comp pedals that originally defined the sound of guitar compression in a pedal. There have been countless clones and derivatives of the ‘ole Ross/Dyna Comp, but Wampler’s Ego Compressor is the current pinnacle of OTA compression design. It’s cleaner, quieter, and simply sounds more ‘full’ and ‘toneful’ than anything else.
While those early guitar pedal compressors had only 2 knobs for adjusting Sustain & Level, the Ego Compressor lets you dial in the Attack and also Blend in your original dry signal. The Tone knob is a real treat as it can roll off or accentuate your high-end while preserving your lows. Although the OTA compressors of old have a notorious reputation for tone-sucking and overly coloring your sound, the Ego Compressor retains the sound of your guitar, especially in the low-end department (where lower quality comps typically get congested and muddy). You can go for higher amounts of fully wet (non-blended) compression and still retain clarity and presence in the upper frequencies thanks to the carefully voiced Tone knob. It’s hard to argue that in terms of OTA design, the Wampler Ego Compressor is the best compression pedal around.
Brand: Origin Effects, Model: Cali76-C & Cali76-CD, Comp Type: FET
The Origin Effects Cali76 took the guitar & bass playing communities by storm because of one reason: it’s essentially an Urei 1176 Limiting Amplifier in a stompbox. Not to mention the Cali76 was created by Mr. Simon Keats, an engineer and compression expert who’s spent years building & repairing Neve preamps, Pultec EQ’s, LA-2A’s, 1176’s, and even a Fairchild 670 (a $25k+ valve monster).
The Cali76 mimics the performance of the legendary 1176 while giving guitarists a range of flavors from its different incarnations. We could fill a list just comparing and contrasting the various Cali76 pedals that Origin Effects has released, and we sort of did in our original Origin Effects Cali76 review & Cali76 Compact/Compact Deluxe review. Quite frankly, they’re all absolutely outstanding in terms of sound quality and performance with each being best suited for different tonal and performance needs. The original Cali76-STD, transformer-equipped Cali76-TX & TX-L, Limited Edition “Parallel Compression” Cali76-TX-P & TX-LP, and Limited Edition Germanium Cali76-G & G-P all have a unique sound and tonality to make them worth considering (or picking up on eBay since all but the TX & TX-L are discontinued). But the biggest news yet for the Cali76 comes in its smallest iterations to date: the Origin Effects Cali76 Compact & Compact Deluxe.
The Origin Effects Cali76 ‘Compact Series’ solves the single ‘biggest’ issue with the original Cali76 pedals – they were huge! The Compact & Compact Deluxe are only 1/3 the size of the larger units while retaining the renowned sound quality and performance of the Cali76-STD. While the regular Cali76 Compact is a great budget choice for getting “the sound” in a feature-light package (i.e. less knob control), it’s the Cali76 Compact Deluxe that’s stealing the spotlight as it has a full parameter set and the ‘Dry Mix’ function from the limited edition “P” (Parallel Compression) units. If you wanted the Cali76 before, but couldn’t justify the huge pedalboard footprint, now’s the time to make some room.
Origin Effects Cali76-CD: See the lowest price on Amazon.
Origin Effects Cali76-C: See the lowest price on Amazon.
Speaking of legendary rack-mounted compressors, there’s one other unit besides the Urei 1176 that’s often regarded as the greatest compressor of all time: the Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier, a photo-optical vacuum tube compressor. And there’s just one stompbox (so far!) that attempts the Herculean task of capturing the LA-2A’s style of compression in pedal form: the Effectrode PC-2A Compressor.
The PC-2A Compressor isn’t meant to be a 1:1 replica of the LA-2A, but you might say it’s the next best thing or better if you’re a guitarist. While the familiar LA-2A control setup is in place (Peak Reduction, Gain, Compress/Limit switch), Effectrode designer, Phil Taylor*, made some particular refinements to optimize the PC-2A for use with guitar and other stringed instruments. Unlike on the LA-2A, the PC-2A’s Attack & Knee are adjustable via internal trimpots. The factory settings are great as-is, but there’s room to tweak for a personal touch or to adapt the PC-2A to bass or acoustic guitar. Also, the pedal’s tube gain stage comes courtesy of an audiophile grade Philips NOS subminiature triode vacuum tube. How does it sound? The PC-2A Compressor is one of the smoothest, warmest, quietest, and most natural sounding compression pedals you’ll ever play.
Thanks to Mr. Taylor’s unparalleled expertise in tube based pedal design (a reputation that causes Effectrode pedals to remain backordered and sell out quickly during their small batch production runs), the PC-2A will continue being as highly regarded in the realm of guitar compressor pedals as the LA-2A is among professional studio engineers. Effectrode calls their products “Audiophile Pedals”, and the PC-2A Compressor’s undeniable sound quality confirms this to be an accurate description.
*No, not David Gilmour’s guitar tech who’s also named Phil Taylor, although Mr. Gilmour, a true connoisseur of tone, does use a PC-2A Compressor in his current rig!
The Empress Effects Compressor is another true standout in terms of studio-style compression in pedal form. It’s an FET comp that is incredible clean, responsive, ridiculously fast, and incredibly versatile. It might be the most well-rounded all purpose comp on this list. This pedal could easily be used by any guitarist playing any style of music.
It has a parallel blending Mix control, Attack & Release, an Input for setting compression amount/threshold, a 3-position Ratio switch, and an Output knob for setting makeup gain. The Gain Reduction LEDs can also be used to monitor input level or both input level and gain reduction at once.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this pedal is the Empress Compressor’s dedicated Sidechain input. It’s a TRS input, so you could use it with an EQ or filter to compress only certain frequencies. But what’s really inspiring is using an external audio source (like a kick drum) to duck your guitar in the mix in realtime. Those classic dance style ‘pumping’ compression effects popularized by Daft Punk with the old Alesis 3630 and used in every form of dance music since (trance, house, modern EDM, etc.) can now be applied from your pedalboard. While certainly not something many traditional guitarists will find use for, a sidechain input is my personal most-wanted feature on a so-called ‘studio-grade’ comp, and I’m glad Empress Effects implemented this so well with their stellar compressor.
The Rivera Sustain Shaman might just be one of the best kept secrets in guitar compressor pedals. First, while guitarists may assume at a glance that it’s yet another Ross-style comp with expanded features, it’s actually a studio-grade VCA compressor built with ultra-premium components. The familiar controls give guitarists with a pedal compressor background easier access to studio-style compression tones. If you’ve never bonded with a Ross-style comp, maybe because they’re too noisy or colorful, the Sustain Shaman may be what you’re looking for. It’s certainly quieter and more transparent than any Ross-style comp around.
There are several other key distinguishing factors to the Sustain Shaman. This compressor has 2 foot-switchable channels, each with their own controls for Attack & Sustain. What’s more, Channel B features Rivera’s unique Super Sustain mode which goes over the top to crown this pedal as the king of clean sustain. Seriously, kick this thing on for distorted leads and let it rip. You can even smoothly transition between regular compression and Super Sustain at key moments by switching channels. And let’s not forget about the Blend & Tone controls that will help you carefully tailor your compression sound. The Rivera Sustain Shaman is one of the more innovative and original compressors out there and is great for anyone looking for something modern and beyond the norm.
Over a decade after Robert Keeley & Co. released their all-time best-selling pedal, the Keeley C4 Compressor, the good folks from Edmond, Oklahoma finally released their 2nd guitar compressor, the Keeley Electronics GC-2 Limiting Amplifier. But rather than replacing or expanding upon their 1st compression design they went in a different direction entirely by abandoning the Ross influence in favor of a studio-style VCA ‘limiter’ pedal that draws inspiration from the classic dbx 160A Compressor/Limiter complete with a similar hard knee and 3-knob interface.
The GC-2 differs from every other pedal on this “best of” list as it focuses on a more prominent style of compression called limiting. While compression and limiting are generally 2 sides of the same coin and those words are easily and often interchanged, the GC-2’s particular strengths lie in it’s actual limiting applications. The GC-2 has a hard knee by default which gives it a slightly more abrupt and aggressive effect when the compression kicks in. This helps you apply a tighter squeeze on your signal when it crosses the Threshold. The Compression knob also lets you set the ratio anywhere from 1:1 (no compression) to Infinity:1, the latter of which lets you achieve a solid volume ceiling for ‘brick-wall limiting’ compression. Although the GC-2’s compression is among the most transparent around thanks to its THAT Corp. 4320 chip (a chip also created by former dbx engineers), these particular characteristics make this pedal also worth considering as an end-of-signal-chain option. I’ve had this pedal almost always on in my pedal review testing rig since I got it to prevent any surges in volume when testing and experimenting with effects. (For example, it helps rein in runaway trails on oscillating delay pedals.) Of course, the GC-2’s front-of-chain possibilities are also noteworthy if you’re seeking a hard-kneed, percussive comp. However, if you want similar capabilities with a little more flexibility, check out Keeley’s Compressor Pro above.
Brand: Free The Tone, Model: SC-1, Comp Type: OTA
The Free The Tone Silky Comp is another take on the classic Ross/Dyna Comp design. The Silky Comp expands the familiar 2 knob arrangement with an additional Attack knob, the key to dialing in the feel of this compressor. It’s arguably one of the most transparent and smooth OTA comps out there and accurately retains your guitar’s sound better than most other pedals of this variety. It’s also on par with the quietest Ross-style comps, so there are no worries in the noise department. The only issue is tracking one down as the Silky Comp is less common outside of Japan, but it’s well worth the effort if you’re looking for a great quality, functional take on this style of compressor.
The TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor may change the way guitarists use compression forever. This digital compressor uses an innovative multiband compression algorithm to separate your signal into 3 frequency bands and apply differing amounts of compression to each one. This pedal achieves the ultimate in dynamic control while remaining affordable and highly flexible. In additional to the multiband Spectra mode, there’s a dedicated Vintage mode for very dark and colorful Ross-style compression. The TonePrint setting allows you to download custom Artist TonePrints to the pedal as well as create your own via the TC Electronic TonePrint Editor where you have complete control over customizing your own multiband compression settings. The HyperGravity Compressor is deep and well worth its affordable asking price.
The Seymour Duncan Vise Grip Compressor is a rock solid, affordable VCA compression pedal from the legendary guitar pickup company in Santa Barbara, CA. It goes beyond most standard guitar compressors in terms of quiet and clean operation and can go from mild to extreme compression thanks to a variable ratio range extending from 1:1 to 20:1. The Attack control lets you tweak the response to suit your playing while Volume sets output gain or adds some clean boost. Interestingly, the Blend knob works reverse of most compressors, adding in your dry signal when turned clockwise. Also, the High/Mid/Full switch attenuates the tone of your dry signal (making it not exactly ‘dry’ when set to High or Mid). This lets you Blend in specific frequencies with your compressed signal for a unique sound and feel unlike any other compressor pedal. Very cool. The Vise Grip may just become your new vice.
Brand: Keeley Electronics, Model: C4, Comp Type: OTA
Here’s a classic pedal to round out our list of best guitar compressors. No list would be complete without paying some respect to the Keeley Electronics C4 Compressor (aka, the Keeley 4-Knob Compressor). This was Keeley’s first pedal and the one that solidified Keeley Electronics as one of the top names in guitar compression. The Keeley 4-Knob Compressor is still one of the best incarnations of the Ross-style compression formula. Some guitarists might go as far as saying that this pedal has achieved greater “classic” status than the pedal it evolved from. There’s no denying that the smooth warmth that the C4 imparts on your signal is still among the best compression sounds around. Thus, you still can’t go wrong by adding a Keeley Compressor to your pedalboard.
That pretty much wraps things up this time around. Again, while there are a few other pretty solid compressors out there and a few quirky pedals noteworthy for guitarists looking for some decent comp sounds off the beaten path, the guitar pedals listed here should give you some great starting points for finding the best guitar compressor for your needs. Few would deny that these compression pedals are indeed a cut above the ones that didn’t make our list. But as always, tone is subjective, so use your own ears, play what you can, and discover for yourself which guitar compressor is the best for your playing and your music.
That concludes our Top 13 Best Guitar Compressors of 2020 – Buyer’s Guide. Thanks for reading.
Is your favorite guitar compressor not here?
Tell us your top compressor in the comments!